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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Disabled and Poor . . . or Else!

Updating a resume is something no one ever actually wants to do. It’s typically done out of necessity, mostly because an individual is unemployed, or a sense of dissatisfaction with current circumstances. A person may want better pay or a more fulfilling career.

I recently updated my resume for a combination of these two popular – or unpopular – reasons. I am most assuredly unemployed. The dissatisfaction comes from the reality that the lack of a reasonable income leads to a loss of control over the basic needs in life, especially when living with a disability. In my case, it’s a place to live. Where I will live, both in the present and the always pending “future,” is an issue that has never been far from my mind since my father’s illness became apparent when I was still in my teens and eventually took his life when I was in my mid 20s. As I rapidly approach 40, my mother and I generally have a good ability to live under the same roof while giving each other “space.” However, with my writing efforts bringing in very little money, I essentially have no say in where I live without a job.

As my latest job search began, it didn’t take long at all to remember why I tried so hard to feel comfortable with a lifestyle that didn’t include working for someone else. The bad economy and lack of available opportunities had nothing to do with my frustration. I haven’t even gotten to the really fun part of going on interviews offered by people who didn’t realize that I have cerebral palsy. They generally manage to make it obvious upon meeting me or hearing my speech that they’re only going through with the interview because they know it would be completely illegal to cancel it because I have a disability.

The jocularity began within days of sending my resume to a small group of people who are already aware that I have a disability. It had been a while, but hearing the “V word” never gets old for people with disabilities looking for a job.

Two people have already suggested that I look for volunteer opportunities.

I’ve actually been down the road of offering to volunteer to prove myself in a job. It’s a long, dark, windy road that leads to a dead end. The theory is that volunteering gives employers time to get comfortable with the person with a disability, and to see that they can actually do the job. The theory fails for many reasons, not the least of which is that an employer who is unwilling to pay a qualified candidate with a disability for a job from the beginning is never going to respect that person enough to treat the individual as a paid employee.

But the suggestion to volunteer brings up a much larger issue. It reveals the prejudice of many in society who believe people with disabilities might want to go to work to have a sense of being productive, but can’t imagine that we really want to get ahead financially.

Somehow the realities of life that everyone else spends time at the water cooler griping about during business hours in which they are collecting a salary are assumed not be a bother to people with disabilities. I’ve actually had relatives ask me why I would even want to work. The thought that I would want to live independently or even strive to buy a home seems foreign to them even as they talk about wanting more of the things that cost money in their own lives – a good retirement, vacation homes, nicer clothes, more robust college funds for the kids.

The message seems to start in our own community. After graduating college with honors and an English Lit degree, I worked with not one but two organizations charged with helping me get a job. The Office of Vocational Rehabilitation paid for the services of both. One of the organizations, I later learned, was actually a business that specialized in helping other companies comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, mostly by acting as consultants with “expertise” in assistive technology. I still don’t comprehend the logic of sending me to them, nor of them taking me as a client. Ironically, they actually did the slightly better job – if one total failure can be “better” than another. The other organization, sadly named after a play on the word disability, never obtained a single interview for me. The AT specialists obtained a total of one serious interview along with two or three mock interviews in which each person I met made it clear – more than once – that they had no intention of hiring me.

Each agency failed as completely as they possibly could, yet, for their ineptitude each was paid as much as they would had they been successful. In fact they were paid more, considering that my job search lingered on and on. I was actually sent back to the AT specialists upon being laid-off from the full-time job I eventually got through a personal contact. Once again, they were paid handsomely for failure.

In the second job hunt, I encountered more of the same from other organizations. By coincidence I began dealing with two individuals within a week or so of each other. Each woman was able-bodied with (paying) careers in which they were supposed to strive to make the lives of people with disabilities better. Upon connecting with both individuals for different reasons, each inquired about my financial situation even though the subject was largely irrelevant to the meetings.

Each woman seemed well intentioned when telling me about various sources of funding available to the disabled, which I qualified for as long as I was dirt poor. Ironically, I eventually went to work for one of them at a foundation on a two-year grant from another institution. I soon learned that her initial inquiries weren’t a bit well intentioned. My future (and now former) boss was actually interested in discussing whether or not I was able to hide my assets.

Funding for the foundation, and therefore her salary and the salaries of her able-bodied employees, is based on providing financial assistance to people with disabilities to buy assistive technology. It seemed ingrained in her as it is in many other so-called advocates to find ways to have people with disabilities look like they need financial assistance. Even my part-time employment turned out to have nothing to do with my financial growth and everything to do with sustaining the foundation. Hired as a writer, I was used in the role of a poster child until I was deemed ungrateful for the job when I put a stop to the demeaning duties.

It wasn’t until dealing with the two women in a short timeframe that I was struck by how incredibly odd it was – or should have been – for them to bring up my finances. The suggestions to hide my assets should have been, and in reality was, downright rude. I almost missed the strangeness based on many similar encounters, which I feel completely comfortable saying are not odd occurrences for other people with disabilities.

They couldn’t even turn off the seemingly automated response of “helping” a person with a disability qualify for assistance in meetings that were about other subjects. The real message became clear soon enough – as a person with a disability, my professional aspirations were irrelevant. I was supposed to be someone in need of financial assistance, which could be provided as long as I essentially had nothing. It’s a concept that practically ensures people with disabilities will remain financially powerless.

Worse, the idea that people with disabilities have no interest in becoming financially self-sufficient, let alone well-off, seems to have taken hold within society. People in their late 30s who are circulating their resume aren’t offered the suggestion to volunteer – unless they have a disability. They also aren’t advised to hide their assets during meetings that have nothing to do with their personal finances.

People with disabilities have enough barriers in the way of the search for financial success that the rest of society is seeking. We should no more tolerate the presumption that the American Dream is out of our grasp than the attitude that teaches us not to even join the search for it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Being Driven Away from Facebook

Do you know where your Facebook friends are? Do you care?

Something called foursquare now allows people to “check in” apparently wherever they go. And when they check in every one of their friends on Facebook sees a message in their news feed informing them that “Steve just checked in @ Kelley’s Row (Dover, NH).”

I don’t really know Steve, though I strangely feel compelled to use a fake name for him. He seems like a decent guy. He was extremely helpful in helping me try to work through a software issue I was having with a product he developed. We’ve even made some minor connections with our different professional ventures.

But I don’t care where Steve is at any given moment. And this has absolutely nothing to do with Steve.

I have actual friends – you know, people I’ve met, spoken to face-to-face, spent time in their actual presence. A lot of time with some. People I genuinely care for. People I miss if I don’t see them enough.

People who should never, ever feel the need to tell me on a given day that they just arrived at Giant.

I don’t know if a person can even check in at Giant. I don’t know if people can only check in at places prescribed by the service, if they have to whip out their phone when they arrive somewhere to jump on a website and “check in,” or, if God help us all, it happens automatically.

And I don’t care.

By journalistic standards I should have probably investigated the how-to of this service, but I just refuse to cross this particular line.

In fact, I think this is finally Facebook’s “jump the shark” moment – at least for me.

Like everything else in the world, or so it seems, Facebook was a great idea that is being destroyed by over use. I’ll admit, I signed up to promote a website I was trying to get off the ground. Maybe I was part of the bastardization of the site.

I quickly got into the social aspects of “Facebooking.” Working (or not working) from home, it was fun to have some human interaction throughout the day. I connected with friends from high school, and people I had only known by name back then. Family connections were made, and some maybe strengthened just a bit. I made a few connections that may help on a professional level some day. Facebook has even become a decent source of information for the two daily blogs that I maintain.

Those benefits were worth sifting through the nonsense of Farmville, so-and-so who I’ve only met once answering a question about me and posting it on my wall, and even the friend requests from people I really didn’t ever want to be friends with in real life. I have to admit, I got fairly apt at declining them.

I enjoyed the sports banter. For a time, I engaged in the political debates, but it turned out to be better not to know the politics of many “friends,” even the actual ones. They no doubt feel the same way. Sharing pictures was cool. And, early on, it was even fun to read the random thoughts people felt compelled enough to share. I think it was even cathartic to share the occasional experience now and then.

But the avalanche of absurdities that everyone agrees are stupid – yet they continue coming, in some form, from those same people – has taken over. After just one day of not checking the news feed there was 300+ news items. I’m fairly certain that is the highest number the site will indicate. The “top news” item was from someone I have met twice, essentially proclaiming she had drunk too much Saturday night.

I still remember the first time I thought Facebook was going in the wrong direction. A woman I actually know, or more accurately knew as a kid, wanted to let the world know how wonderful cuddling with her husband was. The message was written in the present tense.

I have 170 friends on Facebook. I don’t know that many people. I certainly don’t have that many friends.

For now, I’ve changed my Facebook bookmark to my profile page. I can check in, and still get any communication actually intended for me. Blogging efforts will likely force me back to scanning the news feeds, but I’m hopeful that a more stringent use of lists will help me avoid the nonsense. For example, sports contacts will hopefully offer posts about, you know, sports. Note the use of the word “hopefully.”

Gradually, though, I can see myself leaving Facebook altogether. Promoting my blogs is much easier through the stripped down version of Facebook, Twitter, and it has already begun to be a solid substitute for useful information.

And, hopefully, I’ll never get a tweet telling me when someone checks-in at home.